Friday, February 26, 2016

Faith in the System: Arreaga's Public Defender Reflects on Murder Acquittal

Posted By on Fri, Feb 26, 2016 at 3:46 PM

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It was an emotional moment in a Humboldt County courtroom this week when Jason Arreaga was acquitted of murder charges stemming from a 2014 double slaying.

“He was gripping my hand as hard as he could,” said Heidi Holmquist, Arreaga’s public defender who successfully argued for his innocence. “He was really overwhelmed, as I was as well.”

Arreaga was arrested in September of 2014 as the prime suspect in a Fieldbrook shooting that killed Harley Wayne Hammers and Angel Robin Tulley. Last year, Arreaga's initial murder trial ended in a mistrial when jurors couldn’t come to agreement on a verdict. The retrial began earlier this year.

Holmquist said the case was unique because there was another person present at the shooting: Hammers’ estranged wife, Shavonne Hammers, who was given immunity by prosecutors in exchange for testimony in the case, the Times-Standard reported.

Holmquist was able to successfully argue that there was a “lack of concrete evidence about who did [the shooting]” from the beginning, and that investigators “never looked seriously at anyone” besides Arreaga.

“Once you have someone in custody, what’s the incentive to look in other places?” Holmquist asked, characterizing the investigation and identification of Arreaga as a suspect a “very fast turnaround. You can understand the idea that officers want to get dangerous people off the street and want to close their cases as soon as possible,” she said, but thorough investigation is critical, “not just trying to prove their original assumption.”

It didn’t help the prosecution’s case, Homlquist said, when Shavonne Hammers appeared in court intoxicated on the day she was expected to testify against Arreaga.

Holmquist, who won another murder acquittal as co-counsel for Joseph Eugene Miller in 2012, said Arreaga has another chance to make a life for himself. He’s currently being held on a suspicion of possessing a joint while he was in jail awaiting trial. It’s felony that holds a maximum penalty of eight years in prison, though possession of a small amount of marijuana like that is an infraction on the street. A hearing in that matter will be held Monday, Holmquist said.

Holmquist said one juror in the murder trial expressed gratitude that public defenders “are able to defend people, and uphold a process and hold prosecution and police to their burden of proof in order to get a conviction.”

Arreaga, she said, was “extremely grateful of the process and the jurors who were able to listen to the case and take that responsibility.”

“It gives me faith the system is working,” she said.

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Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth has been an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal since 2013.

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